Pubdate: Sun, 28 Mar 2010
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Ed Caesar
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


Hannah isn't just the girl next door. She's a teacher who cultivates 
cannabis on the side. Meet the middle-class growers with a taste for 
easy money and uneasy morals

Meet Alex. He is 26, handsome, privately educated, and, for most of 
his week, a freelance director of documentaries. His wardrobe is 
immaculately shabby: designer jeans, cast-off T-shirts and vintage 
trainers. The kitchen of his boutique Victorian terraced house is 
decked with a vast, chrome Smeg refrigerator, a dining table for 12, 
and two sinks so deep you could bathe in them. He's just had Velux 
windows put in, so the room catches the morning light. He also has 
big plans for the garden.

This life looks enviable, does it not? Now ask Alex how he achieved 
all this so young. Easy, he says: the money grew on trees.

Alex is, in his spare time, a cultivator of high-grade cannabis. For 
three or four hours a week he tends to the 40 or so marijuana plants 
that grow in his spare room under the glare of fierce lamps. Once 
every two months he crops those plants, bags them, makes a phone 
call, and waits for a man with a suitcase to arrive. Each harvest 
delivers around five kilograms of a strain of skunk known in the 
market as "Cheese" on account of its powerful aroma. A kilogram of 
Cheese is worth around UKP5,000, wholesale.

Alex is hoping for five, or possibly six harvests this year. His 
plants are occasionally prone to disease, and he has overheads to 
pay. Still, he hopes to clear an annual UKP100,000 profit. Naturally, 
it will be tax-free.

None of Alex's neighbours on his quiet street in an affluent city in 
the southwest knows about his sideline. How would they? He appears to 
them as he does to me -- a polite, successful young man with a 
burgeoning career. There is never any noise from the house, nor any 
smell. Alex does not smoke cannabis himself. His sideline is, in his 
words, "all about the profit".

He is not alone. Meet Hannah, a well-spoken, 31-year-old 
primary-school teacher who works in the same city as Alex, with the 
kind of cute looks that -- according to one of her friends -- "make 
dads turn up to parent-teacher evenings". When Hannah left 
university, she worked as a PR in London for several years before 
quitting to have a baby. After splitting up with the father of her 
child, she retrained as a primary-school teacher and moved out of the 
capital. Like many recent graduates, she has "significant" student 
debts. So, two years ago, she turned, as many of her friends had done 
before her, to a lucrative hobby. She began growing weed.

Hannah generates much less money through cannabis than Alex, but 
still makes enough to pay her rent and bills. If she were caught she 
would lose everything: her profession, her reputation, and, for the 
period of a likely two-year custodial sentence, her child. Why take the risk?

"I know, I know," she says, giggling nervously. "It is a risk, and 
you're always weighing it up in your mind. Is it worth it? But I earn 
UKP20,000 a year as a primary-school teacher. I've got a child to 
look after. I don't get any help from my son's father. I've got 
debts. The cost of living is so high. If I wasn't making any extra 
money I'd be back living with my mum, as a lot of my friends are.

"It comes down to this: I want to do something with my life and this 
is a way of helping me reach my goals. Maybe, when I'm further along 
in my career, and I get paid better, I'll stop. For now, it's helping 
me achieve something, and that's great."

You will have noticed that this is not, at heart, a drugs story. It's 
a money story. More and more young professional Britons are turning 
to cannabis cultivation as a profit-making venture. They are 
teachers, lawyers, designers, property developers and plumbers. They 
should be thriving in the legitimate success of their careers but, 
somehow, they are not. For some reason, they think they need a little 
extra on the side.

Where does the money go? One 27-year-old energy consultant I spoke to 
said growing cannabis was the only way he could afford a holiday. A 
plumber, who was laid off by his company six months ago, said he was 
using his bi-monthly output of skunk as a top-up to his jobseekers' 
allowance and would quit the moment he found work again. One couple, 
who work as graphic designers (and whose lives will surely be 
examined when some future Andrew Marr comes to anecdotalise the early 
21st century) have sold cannabis to pay for three courses of IVF treatment.

Over three months, I spoke to many of these part-time cultivators, on 
condition that I would not reveal their names or locations. None of 
them thought their extracurricular activities made them criminals. 
But every single one recognised the grave criminal consequences of 
being discovered: a prison sentence. They took the risk simply 
because it was -- financially -- worth it.

These middle-class amateur growers are not kingpins in Britain's UKP5 
billion drugs market. They are, however, a swelling sector of the 
cannabis trade. A recent study by the Independent Drug Monitoring 
Unit found that some 60% of cannabis consumed in Britain is 
home-grown, compared to 10% in 1984.

The charity DrugScope believes organised gangs, often from Vietnam, 
produce about 75% of the home-grown cannabis on our streets. The rest 
is produced by the cottage industry: people like Hannah and Alex.

The deliciously named Dr Gary Potter -- an expert in this field -- 
has noticed a sharp rise in the number of domestic growers. "There is 
a huge demand for it. Ten, 15 years ago, most of the cannabis in the 
UK was imported -- normally in resin form," he says. "Now, that's changed."

Most of the cannabis consumed in Britain now is skunk -- the leafy, 
powerful form of the drug -- because most of it is now home-grown. 
Two factors are behind this "buy local" explosion. There are internet 
sites that lay out how to grow and dozens of shops that sell the 
equipment, including the complex hydroponic growing systems and 
high-wattage lamps, to get started. These shops are not illegal, 
because the products they sell could as easily be used to grow 
tomatoes as cannabis. "But when the guy in the shop asks someone how 
his tomatoes are getting on," says Potter, "it's with a nudge and a 
wink. Everyone knows what they're talking about."

This combination of factors has led to a revolution. "For criminal 
gangs, it becomes simple," says Potter. "Why import, when you can set 
up an operation in Britain? Either you do big, risky imports... or 
you set up an operation that makes UKP1m a year from one house."

For those with ambitions to grow on a smaller scale, the current 
climate is also fecund. "When you're talking about middle-class 
growers, it becomes fascinating," he says. "Five years ago, say, a 
lot of people got into it because they wanted to get away from the 
black market. They really were cultivating for personal use, and 
distributing among their friends. But recently people have realised 
that growing is not only really easy, but you can make a fortune 
doing it. The temptation to increase the scale of the operation is 
too great to resist."

Ethically, this is a difficult area. Finding a consensus on the 
relative harm of cannabis is like trying to cross a motorway on a 
unicycle -- one rarely reaches a conclusion intact. One grower viewed 
the argument in terms of the relative impact on society. "You ask the 
police who they'd rather deal with in a city centre on a Saturday 
night," he said. "A hundred stoners or a hundred pissheads? The 
answer's simple."

Does he feels guilty about people who develop psychiatric illness as 
a result of cannabis misuse? "No, it's the same as alcoholics," he 
says. "Should we ban alcohol because some people get ill by using it? 
I don't think cannabis is any more dangerous than wine. Whether other 
people abuse it or not isn't really my business."

Variations on this argument are being played out at the highest 
levels -- most visibly during the recent furore surrounding the 
sacking of Professor David Nutt, the government's chief drug adviser. 
To recap, Nutt publicly disagreed with Jacqui Smith when the former 
home secretary moved cannabis from a class-C drug to a class-B. And 
he was sacked by the current home secretary, Alan Johnson, after he 
claimed alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.

The one incontrovertible fact about cannabis is it remains, for the 
moment, illegal. For long-time devotees like Frank and Andrew, this 
is an absurd situation. "Don't you think it's a little unnatural to 
make nature against the law?" says Andrew.

Andrew is 33. He has dreadlocks and works as a park warden in a small 
northern city. His friend Frank is 42, wears an anorak, and runs his 
own IT business. They both grow cannabis and have the glazed, cheery 
look of men who have spent too much time indulging their particular 
poison. They are what Potter would call "social growers". Frank, in 
particular, is a guru in the home-grown community. He calls himself a 
"self-appointed tester of new strains," and has about 40 types of 
cannabis in his possession. Much of his spare time is spent 
contacting similar enthusiasts in other parts of the world and 
arranging to swap seeds. He shows me his Mexican, Egyptian, West 
Virginian and Lebanese strains. Impressive, I say -- although all the 
seeds look roughly similar.

"Yes, but they smoke incredibly differently," says Frank. "I've got a 
Mexican a lot of people don't like, because it's quite speedy and not 
remotely narcotic. I've got a Colombian which is quite cerebral. 
There's Pakistani weed that is incredibly narcotic -- you smoke it 
and you pass out. So there's a whole range -- it's a delicate 
business." He lights a joint.

Frank and Andrew have noticed a marked increase in the number of 
police raids on cannabis factories in the suburbs. The arrests have 
focused on commercial Vietnamese and Chinese gangs operating out of 
rented, gutted terraced houses. Now, most of the domestic growers 
that Andrew and Frank know have decided to lie low -- cultivating a 
few plants at a time and making sure they only deal to friends.

For small-time growers like Andrew and Frank, however, profit is not 
the main concern. They simply wish to grow, and smoke, among friends. 
When the police's tails are up, their biggest problem is concealing 
the energy consumption needed to keep high-watt lightbulbs glowing 
for 12 hours a day. "That said, I've got a neighbour who pays UKP600 
a month for his electricity and nobody ever bothers him," says Frank.

For committed growers, there are, naturally, ways and means to bypass 
the electricity problem. Either they keep their operation small 
enough that nobody would notice the spike in energy use, or they 
steal it. Many of the criminal gangs jack their electricity from 
neighbours using rudimentary and dangerous techniques. It can turn 
their houses into fire traps -- and has led to a number of deaths. 
For the upmarket grower, like Alex, the solution is safer, but more 
expensive: he paid a dodgy electrician UKP200 to wire his house into 
the national grid.

The real money is made by those who set up new growers. In exchange 
for half the profits from a domestic operation, an "instructor" will 
lend you equipment, teach you the basics of cultivation and check on 
your crop. Some instructors have 20 "students" working for them -- 
and they make a fortune.

Middle-class growers often make a big show about how their activities 
bypass the criminal underworld. The out-of-work plumber I spoke to 
said: "I don't have a criminal record and have no intention of changing that."

This desire to bypass the black market is why the current trend for 
home-growing flourished: cannabis smokers wanted to ensure that what 
they put between the rolling papers was not muck off a boat from 
Holland but was grown with love and attention by someone not unlike 
them. Despite this, the professional criminals intrude. Hannah tells 
me her biggest fear is not from the police, but from gangs who wait 
around outside grow shops and follow cultivators back to their house: 
"If you have the plants and the set-up in the house, you know there 
are criminal gangs who come and try to do you over, and steal your 
stuff. So I've had to be a little bit savvy."

Growers can be as savvy as they like, but someone has to sell their 
product for them. And that someone is unlikely to have a respectable 
day job. On one surreal November afternoon,

I sat in an Audi estate car with a middle-aged Indian drug dealer 
called Sly, who had gold teeth and an affable manner. He told me that 
the "white boys" who came to him with their crop to sell were only 
one section of the market, and a vulnerable one. "In this city, 
there's many gangs -- black gangs, Asian gangs, Chinese gangs -- and 
everyone's growing now," he says. "They've realised they can make 
money from the home-grown, high-grade. All the kids... the only thing 
they want to smoke is high grade, things like Cheese and Kush 
[another powerful strain of skunk]. The smellier and stronger the 
better. If it knocks them out after one hit, they don't care. A lot 
of white boys who are growing it have been robbed. Gangs come round 
and steal their crop."

If you want to know why small-scale growing operations generate 
criminal interest, the answer is in the numbers. At the end of my 
interview, I receive a lesson in economics. The price of top-grade 
skunk has risen dramatically. A grower -- Alex, for instance -- can 
now sell a kilogram of Cheese for around UKP5,000 to Sly. Sly then 
breaks that kilogram down into four "bars" of nine ounces each. These 
retail at UKP1,500-UKP1,600 each, meaning the kilogram that Alex sold 
to Sly is now worth between UKP6,000-6,400. Those bars are passed on 
to local-level dealers, who sell them on, in ounces, half-ounces, or 
quarter-ounces, for UKP250 or more per ounce. The kilogram Alex sold 
wholesale for UKP5,000 finishes its market journey with a street 
value of nearly UKP10,000.

It's tempting to see middle-class growers as they see themselves: 
squeaky-clean organic farmers in a supermarket world. But many have 
crossed the dividing line into serious crime. Over an orange juice at 
a fellow cultivator's house I meet Michael, a successful, 36-year-old 
property developer who used to grow cannabis, but stopped two years 
ago. Why? "I was running for the local council," he says, laughing. 
"I didn't think it would reflect well on my party if I had a knock on 
the door from the police."

I wonder what Michael's party -- he won't tell me which -- would have 
thought had his past come to light. He was brought up as the son of a 
headteacher in an affluent part of the West Country -- "very 
conservative, very middle-class," he says -- but in his late teenage 
years became "immersed in the rave culture". Soon enough, he dropped 
out of college and was financing himself entirely through dealing 
hard drugs, including crack and speed. It was only when he stopped 
that life to pursue a career as a developer that he began growing weed.

"To be honest with you," he says, "compared to the money I'd been 
making, the income from growing wasn't much. Maybe UKP50,000 a year, 
and I had to work hard for it. I used it to service my debts while I 
got on with being a developer."

I'm not sure on what planet UKP50,000, tax-free, as a sideline, 
counts as "not much". But as Alex told me, making so much money from 
an endlessly renewable source soon warps your perception of the 
world. He first began growing weed when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate.

"I was relatively skint then," Alex says. "But a friend of mine and I 
started growing a few plants, and within three months we were getting 
UKP7,000 each every 8-10 weeks. Suddenly, I had no concept of the 
real value of money. I went out every weekend and spent at least 
UKP500 on a night out. I started buying expensive things. Before I 
knew it, I owed people two or three grand, despite making all this 
money -- because I was always living beyond my means."

Alex stopped growing at the end of his degree course and concentrated 
on his career. He only started his operation again this year to 
finance a particular project and buy equipment. "I'm doing this for 
the sake of my career. This could set me up, professionally, for a 
long time," he says.

The question is: why should so many young, outwardly successful 
people risk their freedom for a little extra cash? I try to conjure 
compelling societal reasons. Is this trend occurring because of my 
generation's collective loss of faith in the idea of a career for 
life? Is it because our belief in our parents' credo that success at 
work will be translated into a desirable lifestyle has fractured? Or 
is it because our lives are already awash with drugs of every kind?

None of these explanations, on its own, will do. Instead, I keep 
returning to Dr Potter's more straightforward diagnosis: people have 
realised they can make a fortune. It's easy money, and when you see 
easy money, you take it. Therein lies the central irony of this 
phenomenon. For a generation in the 1960s, cannabis symbolised those 
heartfelt hippy cliches of free love, dropping out and sticking it to the man.

In the dying days of the last acquisitive decade, and the early days 
of this one, we have put aside such childish things and seen the drug 
for what it really is -- a cash cow. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake